"This is pure folly. It's great fun," said socialite Patricia Kennedy as the last of Christian Lacroix's avant-garde fall haute couture disappeared from view.
"I thought it was a darling collection and I don't use the word often," raved Neiman-Marcus General Manager John Martens, seated with wife, Bridget, at the same peach-and-gold table in the Beverly Wilshire's cavernous ballroom. "It was so feminine, so flippy, very young and very flirtatious."
The "Salute to French Impressions" Thursday night was a darling affair in its own right, presented by the Costume Council of the County Museum of Art and the French Trade Committee for Trade Exhibitions Abroad.
The museum benefit was in conjunction with a four-day trade exhibit--which ended Sunday at the Convention Center--billed as the largest showcase of French fashion and home furnishings to visit the United States.
Champagne to Dancing
Dressed to the gills in good taste, an estimated 700 guests, who had paid $175 for the museum benefit, glided from champagne reception to fashion show to a tres French dinner (salmon mousse, filet of beef, salad, cheeses, chocolate gateau ) and on to the dance floor.
Amid a fine collection of black-tie attire, there were the exceptional pieces, including Kennedy's satin-brocade Givenchy sheath. Taking one look at the gigantic bow that was the bodice of the dress, a male guest asked if she'd had as much trouble tying hers as he had tying his. "No," Kennedy said, smiling, "but I had a terrible time driving."
The lure of Lacroix's work for Jean Patou brought out American haute couturier James Galanos, who found himself with his own receiving line as friends and devotees lined up to say hello. Elsewhere, anchorman Jess Marlow and actor Cesar Romero managed to circulate with less fanfare, even though Romero's trademark smile during the show was enough to light up the runway.
"Amusing, wonderful, but from my standpoint I don't see how anyone could wear them," said the silver-maned actor after seeing the 63-piece collection on its first trip outside Paris.
Lacroix, the undisputed star of French haute couture, has taken Patou from staid to stunning during the last few years. But his young-at-heart, fantasy approach seemed at times too much for his latest audience. After a brisk-paced display that ran from an empire-waisted flannel pantsuit to an amazing-amusing rooster-feather coat to a museum-worthy patchwork evening skirt, there was only modest applause. A disappointed Patou representative called the reception "cold."
But Edward Maeder, curator of costumes and textiles at the museum, saw it differently: "People were shocked at first. It took them almost half of the show to get the humor. The idea you can have fun with haute couture is a bit like feeling comfortable about laughing during a ballet."
Lacroix, a gentle, fun-loving, unpretentious man in his mid-30s, was actually paying homage to America with his fall collection.
"I was inspired by my last trip to the United States," he explained the day before the gala. "This collection is about the American woman. The daytime designs like the gray flannel with mink are my idea of the New York woman. And there are some outfits that are a mix of Sioux, the pioneers and New York, while the evening wear is inspired by Sinatra songs."
A New Emphasis
His baby-doll lengths are created "for women who have something of the child in them," and his ubiquitous empire waistline is a new emphasis to replace that of big shoulders.
As for his spectacular concepts--such as full-length mink skirts, enormous jewelry, huge bustles, hats often in the shape of giant peanuts--Lacroix explained: "I love elegance--French elegance, American elegance--but I want women to play with fashion, not to be serious.
"In haute couture, it's a pity if we don't use all the possibilities we have. We can work weeks and weeks on a dress, and when we are spending all that time and money and effort, there has to be a bright result--not boring."
No one could have called it boring. And for one man especially the results were bright. The whole French Impressions concept was partly the brainchild of Alain Galliano, the trade commissioner and consul of France based in Los Angeles.
As the orchestra serenaded the last guests on the dance floor, Galliano looked tired and content. After 10 months of touring France, using the magic word "Hollywood," he had attracted over 200 French exhibitors, who had paid an average $10,000 to display their wares at the trade show. Judging from the reactions of stores such as Bullocks Wilshire, they were being well received, Galliano said. "The United States and France," he mused, "have a long love story from the viewpoint of history and culture."